Arsenic Levels in Rice: Cause for Concern?

On September 6, 2013, the FDA issued a new statement regarding arsenic levels in rice, after analyzing the effect of this contaminant on immediate health. Their conclusion: arsenic levels in rice are far too low to cause immediate health damage. Their caveat: the effects on health over the long-term are unknown. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is less wishy-washy and has declared arsenic a known human carcinogen.

Brown rice in a green bowl

Arsenic and Rice

In 2011, on the heels of an uproar over the significant levels of arsenic found in grape and apple juice, Dartmouth researchers revealed that among 229 pregnant women studied, those who ate rice had higher levels of inorganic (toxic) arsenic in their urine. Arsenic is especially dangerous to pregnant women because it can penetrate the placenta and harm the fetus. Other studies conducted in developing countries with arsenic concentrations 50 to 200 times higher than levels typically found in the United States have substantiated the correlation between arsenic and an increased risk for miscarriage, lower birth weights and a higher risk of infant mortality.

While the health effects may not be immediate, they are certainly lurking, festering and viable. Studies suggest that inorganic arsenic in food leads to a greater chance of developing skin, lung or bladder cancers, and has also been linked to heart disease, diabetes and neurological defects.

Arsenic in Food

There are two types of arsenic: organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic passes through your body without causing harm. Toxic inorganic arsenic, on the other hand, makes its way into food through the use of insecticides and pesticides. The more inorganic arsenic in food we are exposed to, the greater our risk of chronic illness over time.

Unfortunately, arsenic cannot be destroyed, and particles from air, water and land settle into our food and beverages. Consumer Reports conducted a study of the most popular rice samples and rice products, including store brands and organic brands. “Virtually every product tested” contained quantifiable amounts of arsenic.

The recent FDA study deemed arsenic levels in rice insignificant at 2.6 to 7.2 micrograms per serving. (Rice products measured 0.1 to 6.6 micrograms.) While we cannot eliminate arsenic in food entirely, we can keep arsenic levels on the low end by controlling where we grow our foods and monitoring the industrial use of pesticides.

Mitigating the Damage

No one is advocating giving up rice for good, but it may help to be a bit choosier with the type of rice you eat. Rice grown in the United States contains higher concentrations of arsenic than does basmati and jasmine rice from India and Thailand. Brown rice has been shown to have more arsenic than white rice does due to manufacturing methods. Arsenic accumulates in the outer layer of rice bran in brown rice. If you eat rice everyday, consider changing things up and limiting exposure. Maybe chow down on some noodles instead!